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6 hacks to get yourself more room on the plane

by Staff

The greatest luxury on a plane is not the first-class meal, warm hand towel or posh amenity kit. It is — not to be antisocial — the lack of someone else all up in your personal space.

Some travelers might be able to afford that space by booking lie-flat seats or an exclusive pod at the front of the plane. The rest of us? We need to get a little creative — and maybe lucky.

“I would rather have an empty seat next to me rather than a big first-class seat,” said Scott Leazenby, 49, of San Diego. “I don’t like rubbing elbows with complete strangers. I just like to have that space between me and the next person.”

Airlines blocked middle seats for health reasons in the early days of the pandemic, but those practices are long gone. This week, the ultra-low-cost Frontier Airlines announced a new upgrade option that allows passengers to pay extra to book an aisle or window seat in the first two rows while keeping the middle empty. Australian airline Qantas rolled out “Neighbour Free seating” on some international routes in October.

“Many large European carriers take this approach of blocking a middle seat to create an upgraded seating category, typically sold as Business Class on intra-European flights,” Frontier spokeswoman Jennifer De La Cruz said in an email. “For many consumers, having extra leg and elbow room and generally more space is a priority, particularly at an affordable price to upgrade.”

Without paying for the privilege, the chance of hitting the empty-seat jackpot is low, said Zach Griff, senior aviation reporter for the Points Guy.

“The four largest U.S. airlines reported load factors in the low-to-mid 80% range for 2023, meaning that there are only a handful of empty seats on each departure, especially during peak departure times,” he said in an email. While using some savvy techniques might improve the chances of sitting next to an empty seat, Griff said “the odds aren’t in your favor.”

Travel experts shared their own tips and hacks for scoring an empty seat — or at the least, more room to stretch out — when they fly.

Pay extra, but not too much

Sure, you could buy an extra seat at the full price to make sure you don’t have to struggle for control of the armrest. But that might not be in your budget.

The new Frontier option, called “UpFront Plus Seating,” is priced at $49 per passenger, per flight segment — but only as an introductory rate for trips between April 10 and 30. After that, the cost will be “determined based on demand as we understand how consumers engage with the new product,” the company said.

Qantas’s no-neighbor seats, which are available on some international routes, starts at $148 for flights between Australia and the United States.

Griff said most major U.S. airlines and many large international ones sell economy seats with extra legroom that generally cost between $30 and $150 more than a standard ticket. He called it “a good option for those who are looking to upgrade their onboard experience without breaking the bank.”

It’s a favorite booking hack by couples who hope luck will be on their side: Choose the aisle and the window and cross your fingers that other travelers will be discouraged from picking the remaining seat in the middle.

Leazenby, who reviews airlines for a living on his site SANspotter, said he and his wife employ this tactic. On a recent trip to Florida, he said, it worked both ways.

“The chances of it working out are better the farther back in the plane you go,” he said. “People are more willing to put up with a middle seat if they’re closer to the front.”

Benét J. Wilson, a longtime aviation journalist who goes by the Aviation Queen, frequently flies Southwest, which does not have assigned seats. Her frequent-flier status gets her “EarlyBird” check-in, which gives her a chance to be among the first to board the plane. The add-on starts at $15 per person each way and automatically checks passengers in for their flight and provides a better position for boarding. If Wilson finds out finds out in advance that the flight is not full, she tries to sit as close to the front of the plane as possible.

Her reason: “The closer up you are, the quicker the overhead bins fill up,” she said. And if people pouring onto the plane want to put a bag up top but see there’s no room, chances are good they’ll keep walking past the empty middle seat so they don’t have to stow their bags far away from their seats.

“They want to sit where they want to sit,” she said. “But they don’t want to be like the salmon spawning, going back to get their luggage when the plane lands.”

Travel writer Victoria Walker argues in favor of choosing the last row on a plane. The potential downsides of sitting near the lavatory and being the last off the plane are outweighed by the freedom to lean back without repercussions.

“On shorter flights, booking the back row means I can recline (with some restrictions) without bumping into the knees of the passenger behind me and avoid a passive-aggressive complaint or, worse, a broken laptop or tablet,” she wrote.

Griff said in his email that he recommends choosing a seat near the back to maximize the chance of an empty middle because those “are generally less desirable.”

Be strategic about when you fly

Leazenby, who has written about ways to get a neighboring empty seat, said timing is important.

He said on a flight to Paris last month — not high season for the destination — he had empty seats next to him on the way there and back.

He tries to fly to leisure spots such as Orlando and Hawaii midweek; if he’s going to a more business-oriented city, he might choose a Saturday afternoon or evening flight instead.

Holidays — like the actual day of the holiday — are another good bet, Leazenby said.

“I once flew back from Europe on Christmas Day, and the flight was maybe 20 percent full,” he said. “I had an entire row to myself.”

Griff recommends looking on sites such as SeatGuru and aeroLOPA to get a sense of which seats might offer extra legroom, such as window seats in the exit row of some Airbus planes. He uses those maps for reference as he checks availability for his own flight.

He said it’s also worth monitoring an individual flight’s seat map until close to departure time.

“Airlines generally let you change your seat on the mobile app until a few minutes before the flight, so if you notice some empty seats on the map, it could make sense to switch your assignment with the hopes that no one on the standby list takes a seat next to you,” he wrote.

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